Thursday, August 30, 2007

At this moment...

Right now, I'm not at work. The sterile cardboard cubicle is not closing in on me. The steely-cold glare of the flourescent light is not a spotlight on my disappointment and failure.

Right now, I'm outside on a sunny day, enveloped in cool breezes, looking at the water.
I'm barefoot in a hammock, wrapped in my white kaftan and letting wind-borne drops of water kiss my face, my neck, my feet.
I have a pen in my hand and a small leather book pressed against my thighs, propped up by my bent knees.

I'm not here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Allergic to Aging

With my 25th birthday looming, I've become even more introspective. I'm noticing a lot of changes in my being, physical and otherwise, and some of them are surprising, but I'm especially startled by how negatively I'm reacting to my transformation. I always thought I'd age gracefully, nonplussed about the mild lines that Time was drawing on my face, openly embracing the gray hairs huddled around my temples. Instead, I am acutely aware of every minute shift in my cellular construction. That which was comfortably transitory is now the perceived harbinger of a future, permanent ugliness that I struggle tirelessly to stave off. Now, for example, I refuse to look surprised, for fear that the wrinkles in my forehead will etch themselves in so deeply that I will look twice my age by the next day. It's a different truth I face. Now I know: I will not approach middle age with an air of confidence and pleasure in my accruing wisdom and still-youthful good looks. I will, in fact, be kicking and screaming all the way to 30 and possibly beyond. As much as I fear and loathe plastic surgery, I have caught myself on more than one occassion wondering what's so wrong with Botox....

Something else that's interesting about turning 25 is the issue of maternal instincts. Last year, I talked about my lack of said instincts and mentioned that I've never been attracted to the idea of motherhood. Loads of people have told me over the years that this is merely a phase I'll grow out of soon enough, when I reach The Age. A lot of people smugly ventured that I'd snap out of it when I turned 25. I dismissed them all, of course, but I'm starting to find that they were right, in an odd kind of way. They were right because recently I've found that I'm pretty obsessed with little people. But they were wrong because they didn't consider the fact that I am me, always have been and always will be.

Thus, my obsession hasn't taken the form that they predicted. I'm not suddenly preoccupied with loading fetus upon fetus into my uterus. On the contrary, I look upon the vermin - I mean, children - and am instantly hit with some very - what shall we call them? - strong reactions. I do, however, seek out these "bundles of joy" wherever I can, just so I can evoke those feelings and then examine them more closely.

Allow me to explain. Today, for example, I was on the Metro riding home from "work". A man walks onto the train, pushing a blond-haired toddler (boy) in one of those bizarrely huge strollers (is there really a purpose to making them that size?), the boy's equally blond big sister in tow. I was too busy daydreaming about something else to really give the boy child the attention that a true obsession warrants, but at some point during the ride, I absent-mindedly noticed him discover something mundane and look up to his father with pure glee written all over his food-stained face. Before I realized it, I was mentally insulting him. Within moments, I had declared him an idiot because he has no idea what is coming in the next months and years. He has no idea that the reckless happiness he exhibited on the train will seep out of his life, millimeter by millimeter, every day, until he becomes like the rest of us, teetering dangerously on the edge of bitterness and despondency. Soon, boredom will be his greatest enemy and closest companion. He will struggle at every other moment to find something to give his life just half the meaning he currently experiences every in his naivete. But here the fool sat, smiling because he could reach out from the tight security of his pushchair and touch the bacteria-infested metal pole in the middle of the subway car.

And so it was that, this evening, I realized that I would have no respect for my child should I deign to have one, simply because I will never accept their naivete as "cute" and "part of life". Instead, I will always wonder, casually and with a tinge of exasperation: "Why were you born so stupid and how long is it going to take you to learn a thing or two?" I'd fuck up a kid, really.

I have a revelation like this every month or so. Last month, I was trying to be a "big aunty" to my friend Chidi's daughter, who's four and can't count. She informed me of this with the same level of seriousness judges reserve for pronouncing death sentences. I dismissed her, mostly because I assume most kids don't know anything they're saying. But I should have believed her, because when I asked this girl how many teeth her baby brother has, she said, "Oh, he has PLENTY teeth - he has twelve!" Please note: the boy is a year old, and has two, maybe three teeth. And I should have believed her, because when I asked her how old she was, she said she was eight. But I really cannot fathom how a human being lives to the age of four, yet has no concept of numbers. So I wiped the incredulous look off my face, hitched up my bra and attempted to do the aunty thing: I tried to teach her how to count.

Having never spent that much time with a kid that age before, I had no concrete idea of how to go about it. I figured, you count to ten a few times, the kid should get the hang of it, eventually someone who's paid to do this will make it make more sense to them within a school setting. Still, I tried. I really did. But after the sixth round of counting, the girl was still counting like this: "1...2...[wait for me to say something, realize I'm not going to help, give it her best shot]...8...." I was pissed, man. First of all, how many times do I need to say 1-2-3 for you to get it? Second of all, what's your obsession with the number 8?? I gave up in disgust. But I was good; I didn't let her know how much of a disappointment she is. In fact, I praised her. I just said, "Good girl. Go play with your sister," and bounced on home, counting every step I took along the way. (947. Think you'll ever count that high, little girl??)

But I digress.

My obsession has definitely lifted since I have less time on my hands to indulge myself, but before I started "working", things were such that I'd wake up every morning and spend the first 4 or 5 hours of my day watching all baby-related shows on Discovery Health and TLC. I wanted to closely observe pregnant women, not because I thought they were beautiful natural creatures, but because I wanted to compare them to their "Before" pictures and rate how ugly they had become (say what you want, pregnancy ain't cute - especially not after month 6). Then I'd watch "Surviving Motherhood" so I could criticize all featured parenting methods, especially the mothers with "alternative" methods (bargaining with three-year-olds, etc.). I ended my sessions with "Bringing Home Baby", during which I would eagerly mock first-time parents to my heart's content as they struggled to adjust to their newborns, complaining about lack of sleep and how quick the younger mothers were to grow frustrated at their baby's refusal to "latch on". I especially enjoyed watching as they bargained with themselves and defended themselves against imaginary enemies ("It's something I've really struggled to accept, that I can't breastfeed, and there's no need for me to feel like a failure." Losers.). At the end of it all, I'd sit back, more convinced than ever that my life is perfect as it is and will always be perfect this way. Looking at people in that "phase" of life brings me contentment, and that feels great to me. Again, I make no apologies.

The only thing I'm going to like about being 25 is that I will finally be able to rent a car for under $100 - praise be to Allah, Buddha and Sango, no more doors are closed to me! I have been waiting for this day, when I can tell Budget and Avis to KISS MY FLAT ARSE with their no-rent policy for drivers under 25. It's kinda sad that this is all that's meaningful about this year, but...oh well. Wish me Happy Birthday on the 24th, somebody. I'll need it.

And to all the people who helped make last year's birthday the most memorable of my life, I miss you guys and wish I could re-live the whole thing. There never was anything like turning 24.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English

I'm reading Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy for the umpteenth time. I never get tired of it, and I will say over and over again how much I love this book, and not just because I love the guy who wrote it. It's hilarious. Written in the same style adopted (abused and bastardized) by Uzodinma Iweala, who wrote Beasts of No, that book absolutely sucked eggs. I don't really apologize for saying that - all you people who gushed and gushed about it, making me spend money I could have spent on an infinitely better read, deserve 40 lashes of a nail-studded whip! Jesus, it was bad! I finished it only because I could see it was short, but it took me all day when it should have taken me hours - the added time came from minutes spent frowning, agitatedly rubbing my eyes and forehead, huffing, flinging the book across the room, stomping over to pick it back get the picture. HORRIBLE BOOK!!

Anyway, indulge me - this excerpt is one of my favorite parts of Sozaboy. The character speaking is Mene, the book's narrator, a young man from Dukana (an Ogoni village) who is, at this point, trying to decide whether to join the army and fight in the Nigerian civil war, which is just beginning. Prior to the 'thick man' (who strangely reminds me of the author) preaching his insultive 'sermon' ("And salt must be inside your salt otherwise they will throw you away like mumu, foolish idiot. Amen."), there was a scarcity of salt in Dukana, which raised the price from 2p to one shilling per cup. The excerpt reads:

Then the thick man begin to walk to the pulpit. Everywhere was quiet. What is the thick man going to say? Will he speak English and use terprita [interpreter] or will he speak Kana? So I was thinking all these things when the man begin to pray. Everybody said Amen and then they sat down. Waiting. To hear. What the thick man will say. This thick man wey no dey go church. But who have come to church today.

As you know, when catechist stands up to preach in pulpit, this thing can never end. He will be shouting, abusing woman who goes to another man, he will be saying anything that comes to his head. He can amuse the people too, oh. But today, the thick man is very serious. He just take one line from the Bible. 'You people are the salt in the soup.' Salt in the soup! Have you heard anything like this before? Porson is salt in the soup? I begin to turn this thing for my mind, and after some time I begin to understand. Because if salt is not inside soup, then it cannot be soup at all. Nobody can fit to chop it. Therefore, that salt is very important to everyone. To the soup and to the people who will chop the soup too. Then the thick man asked: 'Suppose that salt no get salt inside it, what will happen?' This kain question na war oh. How can salt not get salt inside it. Ehn? How can salt not get salt inside? Will it be salt? It cannot be salt. Oh yes, it cannot be salt. That is what the man was saying. I 'gree with am. Awright, if na we be the salt, and we no get salt inside our salt wey be ourselves, can we be ourselves? Wait oh. Wait oh. Wait small. Make I no too confuse. Say this thing again, thick man. Yes. If na we be the salt, and we no get salt inside our salt wey be ourselves, can we be ourselves? Look, my friend, I no dey for all this ugbalugba case. Abi, dis man think that we are in University? Am I not common motor apprentice? How can I understand this salt and ourselves and no be salt and 'e be salt?

I love the way he forms Mene's thoughts, aptly capturing both his simple nature and the innately human complexities he carries around but cannot always explain. In this contemporary age of Nigerian Civil War revival, this is definitely a good book to read for those who want to mentally engage in that struggle, yet not be totally bogged down by the despair. And you can compare it to that infernal Beasts of No Nation and tell me who better deserves critical acclaim :-). Ken Saro-Wiwa the writer - let's not forget that aspect of the man, shall we?

Available on Amazon from $6.65 (used) and $16 (new).

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My Firstborn Child

Here she is! My baby! Altered by the publishers, but I don't care - she's here! It's so surreal seeing my name in print, my words out there for the whole world to!!!!! You can read the article and watch the video interview from that link. Also, the original article was divided into two, with the latter half published as a separate editorial piece. I'm posting the original below, for posterity's sake. I'm so excited!!!!!!!!!

It is difficult to imagine a crime more heinous than the deadly attacks launched by the likes of terrorist organizations Hamas and al-Qaeda. Yet, despite the numerous deaths caused by the violent and often explosive tactics employed by Islamic terrorists, there are members of the Muslim world who believe a “bigger criminal” exists in Islam whose transgressions surpass even those of Osama bin Laden. The alleged offender is not an evil genius or noxious suicide bomber. She is Muslim Canadian feminist Irshad Manji, author of the highly controversial book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. Her offense: spurring debate among Muslims.

Manji advocates a revival of ijtihad, Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent, which she believes will open the channels of discussion and allow more modern interpretations of the Qur’an to exist in mainstream Islam. Ijtihad, the tradition that enabled over one hundred schools of thought to exist and thrive in Islam, was forcibly quashed toward the end of the 11th century for entirely political reasons. Instead, scholars – and believers – were made to accept a more rigid, conservative interpretation of the Qur’an, effectively replacing innovative thinking with imitation of medieval norms. This imitation is what characterizes Islam today. But as far as Manji is concerned, the practice of Islam need not fall under such outdated guidelines. “The Qur’an,” she says, “contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to think and reflect and analyze than verses that tell us what is absolutely right or wrong. In other words, the Qur’an itself has all kinds of delicious ambiguities that not just permit us but actually encourage us to think and to reinterpret. [This is] a way forward, a way that allows us to be both thoughtful and faithful.”

It is a simple enough premise. For it, she has garnered a lot of support from fellow Muslims, whom she says are “desperate for honest conversations about Islam”. There have been over 200,000 downloads of the Arabic version of her book, which is available for free download on her website (, and the number is growing. Underground discussion groups in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have sprung up that distribute the book among other reform-minded Muslims who cannot otherwise explore these ideas due to censorship and intimidation. And she receives countless emails of encouragement from young Muslims in the Middle East, such as one from a young man in Jordan who says of his discussion group, “I want to turn this underground discussion club into an above-the-ground phenomenon, because that is when the al-Qaedas and the bin Ladens of this world will know that they don’t represent me or my friends.”

“All of this really goes to show that there is a hunger – however underground, however muted it may be – a hunger for ideas about freedom of conscience, about free thinking and about reconciling that with the faith of Islam,” says Manji.

But the desire to practice an open-minded version of Islam does not come without its risks, which can be dangerous and life-threatening, even in the secular West. Young Muslims who merely express public agreement with Manji’s message can expect violent retribution in the form of stalking and even rape on American college campuses. In Germany, sexually active Muslim girls who shun a life of hypocrisy and deceit by refusing to restore their hymens surgically are threatened with death at the hands of their brothers, fathers and mothers. And in Yemen, where Manji went to film part of her new documentary Faith Without Fear, dancing women – temporarily uninhibited by their burqahs at all-women parties – firmly resisted being depicted on film as fun loving, claiming they would certainly lose their right to vote if the men in their society were to see them being human.

Manji herself has incurred the wrath of several Muslims all over the world, evoking harsh criticism, death threats and even a fatwa from Muslim leaders who have deemed her message un-Islamic and heretical.

The strength of such negative responses reflects the formidable threat that Manji and her cohorts pose to the institution of Islam, but why, one might ask, would the institution be so threatened by a woman? By fundamentalist standards, she is a nonentity by virtue of her femininity. And she is only one person, of petite stature to boot. However, though small and soft-spoken, her words are forceful; her thoughts, provocative. Manji believes that she has exposed the weaknesses inherent in a Muslim leadership which touts dogma over faith, mistakes authoritarianism for authority, and whose only concern is maintaining its monopoly on power. In calling other Muslims to think independently and find a different truth, she has unmasked the shaky foundation on which this monopoly was built, leaving the leadership no choice other than to lash out at her with a vengeful force that seems to only further reveal its insecurities.

But despite the dangers, Manji is proving that she is up to this gargantuan task of facilitating religious reform, attracting hordes of young Muslims all over the world who are anxious to practice a modern, less stifling version of Islam.

The overwhelming response to her message sparked the creation of Project Ijtihad, the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims who work together for the ultimate goal of restoring ijtihad within Islam. Why a network of Muslims? “Because we have to show other reform-minded Muslims who are still too afraid to come out of the woodwork and speak their minds freely [that] they are not alone. That even if they speak their minds freely and are marginalized and ostracized and disowned by their families for doing so, they’ll have a new family to turn to [and] a new community to be a part of,” declares Manji. Through forums, advocacy and, very soon, a nationwide writing competition for Muslim Americans, Project Ijtihad seeks to challenge the worldview of Muslims all over and transform provocative thoughts and questions into much-needed social progress. But she warns: “[Project Ijtihad] is not about creating rebels…it’s about making sure that we distinguish between education and indoctrination. And here’s the key distinction: education unleashes the permission to use our minds. Indoctrination quashes the permission to use our minds.”

Manji is well aware of the difference between education and indoctrination, the latter being yet another tool to maintain the status quo. While growing up in Vancouver, she attended two types of schools – a regular public school and the Islamic religious school, or madrassa, which she attended every Saturday. “[Initially], I really looked forward to going to the madrassa because I loved the notion of a spiritual education,” says Manji. “What a shock to me, then, to be told: no questions allowed.” Instead, she and her fellow classmates were taught, among other things, that women cannot lead prayer and that the Jews are treacherous and untrustworthy. The prejudice behind such lessons not lost on her, Manji persisted in asking questions that challenged her madrassa teacher until she was eventually expelled. But rather than leave the faith, she decided to spend what would turn out to be the next twenty years studying Islam on her own, starting in her public library. “And I’m so glad I did, because that is when I learned that I don’t have to take a back seat to anyone in the name of God merely because I’m a [woman].” She adds, “I have great gratitude for ending up in a free part of the world where as a Muslim girl and now as a Muslim woman, I can dream big dreams and tap most of my potential.”

Her motivation stems from several sources. She believes, first and foremost, that it is her love of Islam that drives her to continue pursuing justice and equality, saying, “This religion is, at its best, too beautiful to simply let it rot in the hands of those who want to denigrate it.” And Manji also draws inspiration from her mother, a woman whose faithful devotion and exemplary strength of character have shown Manji that “even a traditional, devout Muslim can be open to challenge. Her example [has shown me] that you can be at once reverential and exercise your freedom of conscience, too.”

As a Muslim, Manji plays a pivotal role in influencing other Muslims and re-introducing them to the ancient tenet of ijtihad. To be sure, the fight for Islamic reform must be led by Muslims, but Manji also believes that there is an important place in the struggle for progressive non-Muslims as well. In her opinion, by acknowledging the moderate voices in Islam, non-Muslims can authenticate those reform-minded Muslims within their communities and accelerate social progress that may not have occurred otherwise. In so doing, issues of human rights and lack of equality will no longer be deemed internal Muslim community politics, but reframed within a universal context through which all can benefit. “That kind of partnership works for everybody,” says Manji. “Even though the fight needs to be led from within for reform of Muslims, it becomes…truly legitimate and truly universal when progressive non-Muslims get involved as well. We need them. We reform-minded Muslims need them.”

And non-Muslims need this struggle. When Muslim women hide their humanity for fear of losing meager rights, we non-Muslims fail to see their humanity also. And if we remain blind to the similarities that bind us, we leave room for autocratic forces with devious political agendas to take control of our world by force. When Muslims are repressed – mentally, sexually, spiritually – and told that the only outlet for their frustration is to mete out violence against those who disagree with the institution, we all suffer and some of us die, whether we are Muslim or not.

Manji believes that non-Muslims have a responsibility to protect and promote the notion of a secular society, “where all can practice their religion personally, profoundly and powerfully, [without imposing] it on others. That is what makes a secular society so fair, to even people of faith.” By lending a voice to Muslim reform, progressive non-Muslims underscore the importance of the individual within broader society, rather than preserving power in the hands of those who will continue to abuse it.

As for the Muslims themselves, particularly those who reside in the Middle East – the ones who seek reform but are scared of violence or of losing the tenuous victories they have already managed to gain – Manji continues to encourage them to push beyond existing barriers to self-expression.

For the women in Yemen and others like them, she has this message: “Risk losing the vote. Risk it. Because if you lose the vote over being seen as human, you can increasingly rest assured that reform-minded Muslims around the world will in fact speak up for your rights. We will…expose the injustices that are being committed in the name of Islam by those conservative Muslims who say that just because you wear a smile on your face, you cannot be trusted to elect the next government. That is so unbelievably absurd, such a slap in the proverbial face of God that Project Ijtihad will make a federal case of it.

“[This is] the universal kind of struggle that we are not going to shy away from. And of course, I’m appealing to non-Muslim progressive people to join us in that fight. Because dignity is not restricted to one group of people.”

Moin-Moin for Breakfast

I've been temping for a week now, and the only remarkable thing about it is that I manage to get any work done between all the nodding off at my keyboard. I sit at a desk for approximately eight hours during the day, entering missing data into employee records. It's all I can do sometimes not to peer over the edge of my cubicle and inform my neighbor, "I went to Yale. I can really be entrusted with more than this." But it pays, and relatively well (for senior college students), so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much or too loudly.

Waking up in the morning is very interesting. I've always been an early riser, but as it turns out, getting out of bed before 7am five days in a row is harder to do than I might have suspected. My eyes never open fully until I've plunged my head under the shower, and I've had to drop the water temperature lower and lower to achieve the desired effect. The good news is my pores have never looked better. The bad news is that I'm fucked for winter, when my basement apartment will probably have icicles hanging from the ceiling.

I'm also very unused to eating so early in the day. My stomach never accepts anything creamy or sweet before 10am so my go-to favorite, oatmeal, is out of the question, as are a number of breakfast foods. My first day of "work" last week, I gagged at the thought of making even a cold bowl of the stuff, realizing instead that I had a sharp craving for akpu and ultra-spicy vegetable soup. Perhaps I was a farmer in my former life. So I left for "work" on an empty stomach, and lived to regret it. Since then, I've forced myself to down at least a glass of OJ with whatever itty-bitty leftovers I'm eating. The other day it was a (yes, one) jerk chicken wing from Sweet Mango Cafe; some day before that, I made a bowl of oatmeal and ate three spoonfuls.

But then, on Sunday, I went to Chidi's house. She's a lady I met on the street, on my way to a piano recital. She stopped me with her three bright yellow children, one tied to her back with a bright, red wrapper, and asked me, "How do you take care of your hair?" I was rocking my 'fro, recently released from the twist extensions I had shamefully kept in for over 2 months. Chidi's children all have natural hair because their African-American father insists on it. Chidi, however, is Nigerian and has never in her life had to deal with natural hair so the kids are suffering. I imparted my wisdom, gave her my number should she have any questions and went on my merry way. Three weeks later, she calls to say that nothing is working, so I went over to her house to save the day.

What happened there is a story for another day (and indeed deserves to be told), but the relevant gist is that she was making moin-moin when I got there and gave me some to take home after I was done with the oldest girl's hair (she was an angelic four-year-old who asked me not to come back, but her hair was cute, so whatever). Chidi was a bit miffed that I wouldn't eat at the house, but I had my own hair to twist and it was already 2pm. Plus, I'd given in to my craving and made some hot egusi and pepper chicken the day before that I couldn't wait to dig into. But the next morning, her cellophane-wrapped moin-moin caught my eye when I opened the fridge, and something said, "Eat it."

So I did.

The somewhat annoying smell of sour cheese filled my apartment as I cut into my bean-cakes, but I didn't even notice. As I licked the beans and corned beef off my fork, tasting simultaneously the delectable undertones of dried shrimp and crayfish, I was in heaven. I ate a whole one without feeling even a ripple of nausea, and found that I had more than enough energy to brave the already-sweltering day (DC at 7:30am has 85% humidity and is 25 degrees Celsius), battle fellow workers in the Metro and collapse at my desk, ready to fall asleep once again. So, in the end, it is the food of our ancestors that have, once again, saved the day. None of this mede-mede for me anymore; I'm a "moin-moin for breakfast" kinda gal. Bring on the beans, bring on the eba. So my colleagues will reap the rewards (or repercussions) of my chosen diet; so what? I am hale, hearty and Nigerian and I'm representing for all the people who don't want to be forced to eat bangers, eggs and cereal just because we are forming effyzie in obodo Oyinbo!

I'm gonna have to call her up and ask her to make me some more, freezer-bound and individually wrapped for my weekday morning pleasure.

In unrelated news, I'm published! My first officially published article comes out online today on the Voices of Tomorrow website, including the filmed interview I conducted with Irshad Manji and the clip I was forced to shoot of myself introducing the interview. I'll post a link when I know for sure it's been released, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to bray about my achievement. Yeah, me! I do wish editors wouldn't change so much of the writing though - the article ceases to sound like me at certain points, but beggars can't be choosers, right? And it doesn't matter's published!!

I should get back to "work". More later.